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Site last updated on 07/10/2022

If I only knew then, what I know now . . . It is one of the great themes of literature - the old man who looks back on his life and wishes he could just start over knowing what he now knows. It speaks to the arrogance of youth and the wisdom of time. Not that this section is great literature, but here are some of the key lessons about pigeon breeding and flying that I wish I had know from the very beginning.

  1. Birds can not compete if they are not healthy. Just about everyone knows this. It is the details around this point that took me awhile to really understand.

    First of all, birds that are not healthy do not always look ill. In fact they can look and feel perfect and still not be healthy. I suspect that a good percentage of the birds that are lost fit into this category. In the absence of significant stress, the symptoms of their disease(s) are subtle or not evident. Flying for a few hours in good air, at comfortable temperatures and without winds is not really very stressful for a well conditioned and exercised pigeon. Such a pigeon may return from the shorter and/or easier races in a time that is not that far back from the winners. Put that same bird though in a tough race or one in which it gets lost and the stress brings the effects of the disease(s) to the forefront. When this happens the bird is not capable of maintaining a competitive race speed and can even be lost all together. Combine this with the fact that a flying team consists of a group of birds which often have a similar health status and these conditions can lead to large losses. Large losses or not, you can be sure that the winners of large competitive races are in either perfect or nearly perfect heath.  

    Secondly, good health is not merely the absence of illness. It includes among other things an intestinal flora that is balanced and which consists predominantly of “friendly” or beneficial bacteria. The cells of the tissues and organs must be well nourished reflecting a steady diet that is not only balanced with the right amounts of proteins, carbohydrates and fats but also contains sufficient amounts of required vitamins and minerals (which are not always available in useful forms in grains). The immune system must be strong and well developed. Poisons and harmful chemicals need to be absent (ever realize that many medications fall into this category and also work against a strong immune system?) There are other factors contributing to the state of good health, but these are probably the ones most often mismanaged by many flyers.
  2. Don’t Overcrowd!!! This has to be the number one mistake most people make. I like 15 cubic feet per bird (a little less if there are no babies - 25 cubic feet is even better). That may be a overly generous, but it gives you an idea of what I consider not to be over crowding. You can get away with a higher density if you have excellent ventilation, but even then I still prefer to stick to this number as the ideal.
  3. The 1% Rule. The numbers will vary depending upon your gene pool and your breeding program, but the rule is essentially the same for everyone - the vast majority of the birds we raise are not good enough to be retained for breeding. And, the vast majority of the birds we put into the breeding loft are not going to prove out as good enough to be kept for breeding.

    Just to keep myself in the right frame of reference, I look at every crop of youngsters expecting, at most, only one in a hundred will make it to the breeding unit. I think of every pair as unproven until I can be convinced otherwise. Of course you can error on either side of this “1% Rule”, but most people are far too lenient. Failing to set and keep to a high mark will drastically slow your genetic progress. Go to slides 29-34 here, to see why keeping more than the top 1% will keep you from progressing very fast.
  4. Stay With the Plan. I see this all the time in pigeon racing. People jump from fad to fad faster than the fashion industry. Sometimes it is a particular bird or family that gets everyone’s attention. Other times it is a particular technique or a new “magic” concoction. Decide on what system you will use and stay the course. Learn how it works and master it before you even think about evolving it or scuttling it for the “latest”. In general, if you haven’t spent at least 3 years executing your plan (be that a family of birds, a flying system or even a health plan), you probably haven’t mastered it and you may not even understand it. If you thought through it enough in the first place to go down that path, do yourself a favor and give it a fair shot.
  5. Take time and observe! Your birds will tell you everything if you will listen. Try it. When was the last time you took a stool and a few cans of your favorite beverage and just sat in the loft for a couple of hours watching?
  6. Its all about the genes. As flyers and breeders we can mess it up, but if we do our job, it comes down to the genetic abilities of the birds. As a geneticist, I know this, probably better than most. Yet, every year, I am surprised at how much more important genetics is than I had thought. Don’t ever forget the  “Rule of 7” (slides 8-10 here).
  7. Don’t train the hawks! There are more of them than you can possibly contend with. Be smart about how you train and exercise your pigeons. Read this for a more thorough discussion.
  8. Understand Hormones! These chemicals are the master coordinators of the body’s functions. Many of them are triggered by environmental influences. For example reproductive behavior is heavily influenced by seasonal variation as these are the messages that tell the pigeon to prepare for egg laying (because spring is here) or to start rebuilding the body feathers (because winter is coming). The master fancier learns how these hormones work and modifies the environment to help manage breeding and promote ideal conditions for racing. The simple act of a fancier providing nesting material can trigger more pronounced brooding behavior by a pair; increasing the hours of daylight and increasing the protein level in the diet will simulate the coming of spring and trigger egg laying. The darkening system and widowhood flying are two great examples of management systems whose benefits are completely derived by influencing hormones.
  9. There is a crucial difference between training and testing. In training it is about creating a team and promoting good habits so as to maximize your odds come racing day. When testing, we are looking for the superior individual and we want to minimize all aspects of group behavior. When I train a race team I like to release the best birds as a small group so that they learn to fly together. When I test, I always try to single toss.
  10. Truth or Consequences - Just because we think it is true doesn’t make it so. Get some of the key concepts wrong and you can be fighting yourself every step of the way for years. Learn to distinguish between fact and fiction (slides 6-11 here).
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